December 17, 2000, updated at 11:38PM
Big Lie: Every vote counts
By Paige St. John
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER
For seven hours on a cloudy Tallahassee morning, local judges and dozens
of anonymous court clerks were sequestered in a conference room of the
Leon County Public Library with the sacrosanct ballots of Miami-Dade County's
9,000 uncounted undervotes.
Through magnifying glasses they peered at punch cards for the telltale
pinholes of light and truth that meant a vote.
They were almost halfway through when the U.S. Supreme Court halted
the effort. Four days later, Vice President Al Gore conceded. With a 537-vote
margin, Texas Gov. George Bush took Florida's 25 Electoral College votes,
enough to win the presidency.
Because of those uncounted ballots, however, the world might never
know: Who really won?
Elections, mathematician C.L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) wrote
in 1876, are not truth. Rather, Dodgson said, they should be considered
"more as a game of skill than a real test of the wishes of the electors."
In other words: There may be a legal number, but there is no True
Not every vote counts.
"Most Americans believe, like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus,
that elections are fair and honest and they sort of just happen," said
elections systems examiner Michael Shamos, a computer programming specialist
and director of Carnegie Mellon University's Universal Library. "When you
look up close, it's a tremendously flawed system."
Shamos has studied an estimated 170 voting systems. He panned
the popular punch card in 1980 as "not only the worst system we had ever
seen but the worst one we could conceive of."
He believes every one of the three voting systems used in Florida
(punch card, optic scan and paper ballot) cannot say to a single vote what
every voter intended.
It is a difficult fact to accept. A consortium of major newspapers
and news outlets is pressing its legal right to retrieve the thousands
of uncounted ballots for recounting. If they prevail in court, they'll
then have to decide what mark makes a vote -- a dimple, a dent, a dent
with a circle.
But what about the 19,000 double-votes that spoiled ballots in
West Palm Beach County? And the migration of thousands of unexpected votes
to Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan on that county's butterfly ballot?
And more than 2,000 similarly overvoted ballots in Gadsden County?
What about those who might have voted? The Seminole County Democrats
whose absentee ballot requests were thrown out while their Republican
counterparts were helped in? The reports of intimidation at polling places
and voters illegally turned away because they didn't have photo IDs?
Shamos warns that any post-election recount effort on a voting system
that has displayed such a large margin of error is as futile as Jonathan
Swift's Lilliputian war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians
over which is the correct side to crack a soft-boiled egg. Numbers experts
Both Bush and Gore left Florida with 48.8 percent of the vote.
"Once you get to something statistically this close, it looks
an awful lot like a tie," said Lorrie Faith CranorÊf+zÊÊf-zÊ,
an engineering and policy researcher at AT&T Labs in New Jersey who
studies electronic voting. "Flip a coin and forget it. That's the sort
of thing your average person finds really disconcerting, but to a statistician,
that's actually more comforting."
And more real.
There were 178,185 uncounted presidential ballots in Florida,
just shy of 3 percent of the nearly 6 million votes cast and more than
the population of Tallahassee.
An unknown number were left intentionally blank. An unknown number were
intentionally spoiled by voting twice -- overvoting. And another unknown
number were missed by the optical scanner, or miscast by confused voters,
or mangled by the counting machine.
Punch card systems used in 28 of 67 Florida counties, and to count
34 percent of the vote in the United States, have become the national scapegoat
of the election.
In the Florida chaos, electoral and media sources attacked long-known
flaws of the punch card voting system with fury. The punch card originally
was developed to feed IBM computers, not to vote by human hand. They allow
some voters to cast too many votes. Worse, they allow otherwise good votes
to go uncounted if the bit of paper being punched out flips back into the
Recounts on punch card systems are notorious for never producing
the same number twice, as more and more of those paper pieces, called chads,
A New York Times analysis damned the punch card for allowing
1.5 percent of the Florida vote to register as zeroes, compared to .3 percent
of ballots cast on optic scan systems. The finding, suggesting there were
valid votes hidden among dangling chads, made its way into the dissenting
pro-recount opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
But it didn't mean punch cards are worse overall. The Times
had lumped together two very different optic scan setups, and focused only
on one possible error, undervotes.
In reality, Florida voting results show, when it came to producing
countable votes, the punch card has an equally bad counterpart in the optic
scan system, when those votes are counted at a central location instead
of at precincts.
Optical scan ballots work like high school exams -- paper forms
with bubbles to be filled in by hand. In 16 Florida counties, the voting
process stops there. Good or bad, the ballots are dropped into a box and
trucked to a central spot for counting after the polls close.
But in 22 other Florida counties, including Leon, the filled-in
ballots are fed into a counter at the precinct. Bad ballots are spit back
and the voter gets a second, even a third, chance to try again.
Running a punch card through the same kind of precinct counter could
"lessen the problems inherent in the punch card system," said Herb Asher
at Ohio State University's John Glenn Institute for Public Service and
Asher helped publicize some of the earliest work condemning the
punch card as error-prone 22 years ago, and finally the system appears
Abandoning punch cards for optic scan systems without at the same
time demanding precinct counting, Asher said, "may be going from the frying
pay into the fire."
Nowhere in Florida was there an uncounted-ballot problem as big as
in Gadsden County. The county led the state with 11 percent of its presidential
ballots spoiled by overvoting. In one precinct, one out of every five ballots
What went wrong?
"I don't know," said Elections Supervisor Denny Hutchinson. "I
think there were too many presidential candidates."
Gadsden County is rural. It is poor. Forty percent of the adults
did not finish high school. Election observers suggested that illiteracy
was the problem.
However, in past elections, the double-voting rate was half that
of this year. And other races this year had a fraction of the presidential
But in the presidential race, eight candidates were printed in one column.
In the next column, under "General Election," appeared names of two more
obscure presidential candidates, Howard Phillips and Monica Moorehead.
Ohio State University's Asher last week tried out the Gadsden
ballot on a breakfast meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club, with instructions
for the business members to pick one candidate in every race. The Rotarians
made the same double-vote mistakes, picking a candidate in each column.
What's more, four other Florida counties with the same two-column
presidential race had high rates of overvoting -- from 5 percent of Gulf
County to 8.5 percent in Franklin County.ÊGRFK NO Vote, No CountÊÊu=B67602D7Ê`
West Palm Beach's confusing butterfly ballot, with candidate names in two
columns and the vote punches running down the middle, showed no voter is
immune to hard-to-understand ballots. Voters of all ages and backgrounds
complained they had difficulty.
But Asher's research on elections in Ohio showed ballot design
errors tend to mostly affect voters who have lower incomes and less education.
With the exception of one precinct, Gadsden County's own results
also showed the double-voting rate increased as the precinct's black registration
rate increased. To Asher, that means voters were not given the information
"I get really angry when I hear, 'They're stupid, it serves them
right,' " Asher said. "I think that's the wrong attitude. You want to encourage
participation to complete votes."
More so than the kind of the machine being voted on, an understandable
ballot is key to casting votes that count, usability experts say.
"The system is so imperfect, it disenfranchises many voters,"
said Susan King Roth, chairwoman of the Department of Industrial, Interior,
and Visual Communication Design at Ohio State University. Roth has studied
the effects of ballot designs on voting behavior.
"People don't operate like expert users," she said. "The fact
that there are so many systems out there that don't discourage human error
means we haven't gotten there yet."
There are other obstacles to democracy.
After scandals of vote-buying, dead voters and felon voters in
Miami two years ago, Florida began a campaign to clean its voter registration
The Secretary of State's Office hired a computer company to produce
a list of suspected invalid voters, including convicted felons, and
sent the names to election supervisors.
The purge list was bad -- containing thousands of names of properly
registered voters. Some, like Leon County, refused to use it. Some, like
Gadsden County, used the list to send out notices of removal.
The effect was that in July 2000, Florida election supervisors
deleted 38,408 voters, half again as many as were removed in July 1999.
No one knows yet how many properly registered voters were dumped, but Leon
County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said only 34 of 690 voters targeted
for removal proved to be felons.
Another challenge was faced by overseas absentee voters, who have
added burdens of requesting their ballots.
"As a first-time voter, unsure of all the absentee voting ins
and outs at the time I left to study abroad, the process seems tedious
and too difficult for the non-zealous voter to complete willingly," said
Melissa Renwick, a Tallahassee woman living in Italy. Her ballot arrived
at Leon County in time to be counted, but without the prior request. It
was thrown out.
But even those who followed the rules found themselves without a vote.
As a last-ditch effort, the commander of a U.S. Navy ship stationed overseas
in November pleaded to Secretary of State Katherine Harris for help in
finding his AWOL ballot.
Voting systems must do the same four things, whether mechanical or
computer, said Shamos, the computer system specialist at Carnegie Mellon.
They must present a clear and unconfusing slate of candidates;
allow voters to clearly express their intent; allow the ballots
to be transported to a counting system without possibility for tampering;
and count the votes correctly.
The punch card system Shamos examined in 1980 failed on all four counts.
But, he said this week, so does the optic scan system. And so does the
old-fashioned paper ballot -- still used in 410 counties in the United
States, including one in Florida.
Shamos has only seen four voting systems he thinks will work --
all direct entry voting computers. Flashing lights on the machines allow
voters to see whom they are voting for. Program codes prevent overvoting.
A paper printout keeps a tally for potential recounts and court challenges.
And the machines are immune from at least old-fashioned vote tampering
methods -- punches made by belt buckle prongs and marks added by bits of
pencil lead beneath fingernails.
But this year in Trenton, N.J., one direct entry voting computer
improbably showed no votes for two local candidates' running mates.
"The computerized machines are not so flawless," said Rebecca
Mercuri, president of Notable Software Inc. and a professor of computer-related
risks at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia.
Mercuri argues that she believes the electronic voting machines cannot
be audited, paper printouts notwithstanding.
"I can teach my first-year students how to show one thing on the
screen, print something else on the paper tape, and record something different
on the computer disk," Mercuri said.
"It's sort of scary, because a lot of places want to throw out
these punch cards and switch to something really scary.
"People keep flinging around words like, 'If we had modern computers
and new technology we should change things.' In fact, that is not the case
because there really is no regulation on these types of machines. And very
few municipalities have either the funding or the knowledge to assess these
pieces of equipment."
Another threat to democracy lurks in the shadows -- civil rights
"Collectively, it is all very troubling, when you look at the
widespread, outright, ignoring or violation of the law," said Randall Marshall,
legal director for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. "Just take,
for example, the numerous, credible stories of people who were turned away
because they didn't have a photo ID."
Even machine error, on the scale seen in Florida, is a contributor,
"It became clearer and clearer that elections officials have known
for years of the problems, yet have not acted, to put it generously, or
to put it another way, intentionally failed to act."
The ACLU, Florida Justice Institute and Florida Legal Services
sponsored a voting rights conference last week to strategize on what to
do. Whatever happens, Marshall said, "it will probably involve litigation."
"Without being cynical, there is a certain level of a kind of
voter fraud, if you will, and irregularities that everybody has known exists,"
he said. "It took this kind of an absolute close race in a presidential
election to shake everybody up.
"At the beginning, you saw a certain sense of, 'Wow, my vote really
does count!' But now?"
A new American distrust is the worry of elections experts such
as Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center in Texas, the national organization
that trains election supervisors and helps evaluate election equipment.
"No one has seen all these warts before," Lewis said. "I don't
think the people in Florida, nor the elections administrators, ought to
hang their heads. . . . I think cool, calm reflection will reveal that
in most instances, most things in Florida were done pretty well."
Lewis points to the close national elections of 1824, 1876
"I'm sure that they were thinking at that time things were broke,
too," he said. "But elections have become better and better and better."
And there are still voters like Vivian Kelly, an 81-year-old civil
rights activist in Gadsden County.
She has registered voters in Gadsden County for four decades.
She has seen flaws more serious than even those shown this year. But Kelly
is not cynical.
"I tell you, when I was in 11th grade I had a home economics teacher
named Miss Jackson. She was saying, when you get registered and vote for
things, you can get what you want," Kelly said.
Gadsden County, though Florida's only majority black county, has
had a historically difficult time electing black officeholders. The new
exposure to faults in the system do not deter Kelly's belief that, even
though every vote does not get counted, indeed, every vote does count.
"See, I know what is right. I know what can make people great."
Contact Paige St. John at email@example.com
or (850) 599-2305.